Bumblebee review

BUMBLEBEE

Director : Travis Knight
Cast : Hailee Steinfeld, John Cena, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., John Ortiz, Jason Drucker, Pamela Adlon, Stephen Schneider, Peter Cullen, Angela Bassett, Justin Theroux
Genre : Action/Adventure
Run Time : 113 mins
Opens : 20 December 2018
Rating : PG13

Bumblebee-poster          The last Transformers movie gave us King Arthur, Transformers fighting Nazis, a secret order entrusted with guarding the Transformers’ history on earth, and Sir Anthony Hopkins. In addition to the usual hyperactive clanging action sequences, there was so much plot it was wont to make one’s head spin. This prequel/spinoff dials things back a notch, leaning heavily on nostalgia and steering the franchise away from the cacophony which has characterised it.

Bumblebee is the story of a girl and her car. The girl: Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld), a sullen teenager coping with the death of her father. Charlie’s mother Sally (Pamela Adlon) has remarried, and while Charlie’s brother Otis (Jason Drucker) has taken to their stepfather Ron (Stephen Schneider) well, Charlie has not warmed to him. The car: a Volkswagen Beetle whom Charlie christens Bumblebee, who is secretly an Autobot from the planet Cybertron in disguise. The Autobots are locked in a vicious war with the Decepticons, and Autobot leader Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) has sent Bumblebee to earth, to scope out the planet as a possible refuge for the Autobots.

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The Decepticons Shatter (Angela Bassett) and Dropkick (Justin Theroux) track Bumblebee down to earth, and trick government agents Jack Burns (John Cena) and Dr Powell (John Ortiz) into assisting them in hunting Bumblebee. Charlie and Memo (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.), the neighbour who has a crush on her, find themselves caught in a high-stakes clash between the secretive agency Sector 7 and the Transformers. The bond between Charlie and Bumblebee undergoes a trial by fire, with the Autobot facing serious jeopardy from the humans and Decepticons alike.

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The live-action Transformers movies, with a possible exception of the first one in 2007, have been varying degrees of bad. Most of the blame has been placed on Michael Bay, who has shown contempt for the source material and its fans. Bumblebee shows the potential of the franchise when it’s placed in the hands of someone who cares about the source material, with Travis Knight taking the reins. Knight is the president of stop-motion animation studio Laika, having directed Kubo and the Two Strings.

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Bumblebee is still very much a studio product, taking full advantage of its 1987 setting to bombard audiences with nostalgia. There’s a prominently-placed can of Tab, lots of 80s music including “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” and “Never Gonna Give You Up”, Bumblebee watching The Breakfast Club on VHS, a reference to Heathers, and the designs of the Transformers are heavily inspired by their G1 incarnations. While these touches can come off as pandering, Bumblebee cuts through it with an emotional through-line, placing an emphasis on ‘heart-ware’ over hardware.

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Putting an animation director in charge means that there is more attention to movement and geometry, and the action sequences are much easier to follow than those in preceding Transformers movies. The scope of the film is more intimate, set mostly in a seaside Northern California town, a welcome respite from the often-meaningless globe-trotting that was a hallmark of the earlier live-action movies.

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Hailee Steinfeld’s Charlie is a character we’ve many times before and seems to intentionally hark back to 80s coming-of-age movies. She’s withdrawn, yearning to make an emotional connection after suffering a personal loss, must fend off preening bullies, and possesses a special skill which you can bet will come in handy later in the movie. However, Steinfeld imbues Charlie with enough liveliness and personality to make her seem more than a bundle of familiar tropes. She sells the relationship between Charlie and Bumblebee, even if a good portion of the movie is Charlie yelling as something horrible happens to Bumblebee.

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The character animation on Bumblebee is very endearing. As a VW Beetle, he comes off as rounder and softer than as a Camaro. Bay’s rejection of Bumblebee’s original form as a Beetle was indicative of his approach – to him, a Beetle just didn’t look cool or badass, but Bumblebee doesn’t need to look cool and badass – he needs to look friendly and approachable. This Bumblebee is also a competent warrior, but the best bits of the film are when he’s a fish out of water, learning to acclimate to life on earth and building his friendship with Charlie. It seems like elements of his back-story from the earlier films, including that he fought in World War II alongside the allies, have been jettisoned.

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John Cena plays the stock ‘Inspector Javert’ type – not necessarily a bad guy, but it’s his job to hunt down the good guys, so he performs the role of an antagonist. Cena shines in the few moments when the character can be funny; it’s clear that comedy is his true calling. John Ortiz’s excitable scientist character Powell is the closest this movie gets to the cringe-inducing comedy stylings of Michael Bay, but the character only makes a brief appearance.

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Charlie’s mum, stepdad and brother are very much an 80s sitcom family, and that works within the framework of the film. Jorge Lendeborg Jr. is the shy love interest, but the film takes its time in developing the relationship between Memo and Charlie.

Bumblebee-Dropkick-Shatter            It’s always a delight to hear Peter Cullen’s sonorous, commanding tones as Optimus Prime, and Angela Bassett makes for a suitably formidable villain as the voice of Shatter.

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Bumblebee doesn’t put an especially original spin on the time-tested “a kid and their X” formula, but this feels much, much closer to what a live-action Transformers movie should be. Viewed on its own, it’s good, but in comparison to the earlier Michael Bay-directed films, it’s great.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Transformers: The Last Knight

For F*** Magazine

TRANSFORMERS: THE LAST KNIGHT 

Director : Michael Bay
Cast : Mark Wahlberg, Josh Duhamel, Laura Haddock, Anthony Hopkins, Stanley Tucci, Isabela Moner, Laura Haddock, Jerrod Carmichael, Liam Garrigan, Glenn Morshower. And the voices of: Peter Cullen, Frank Welker, Gemma Chan, John Goodman, John DiMaggio, Ken Watanabe, Omar Sy, Jim Carter
Genre : Action/Sci-Fi
Run Time : 2h 29min
Opens : 22 June 2017
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence)

It might be hard to believe, but it’s been a whole decade since the first live-action Transformers movie clanged its way into theatres. In this fifth go-round, the Transformers have been declared enemy combatants and are hunted by the Transformers Reaction Force (TRF). Cade Yeager (Wahlberg) is a wanted fugitive for aiding and abetting the Autobots, including Bumblebee. He rescues young orphan Izabella (Moner) from a firefight, and in the process, is gifted a talisman by an alien knight whose ship crash-lands on earth. Cade is summoned by Sir Edmund Burton (Hopkins), the guardian of a sect sworn to protect the Transformers’ secret history on earth. It turns out that the wizard Merlin (Tucci) was bequeathed a magical staff by alien robots; the mythical object long vanished. Cybertronian sorceress Quintessa (Chan) sends Optimus Prime (Cullen) in search of the staff, turning him against his long-time allies. With the help of Oxford literature and history professor Viviane Wembly (Haddock) and reluctant TRF soldier William Lennox (Duhamel), Cade and Burton must unravel an ancient conspiracy to prevent the destruction of earth.

No other franchise in recent memory has been more critic-proof than the Transformers films. This summer alone, we’ve witnessed King Arthur: Legend of the Sword and The Mummy feebly attempt to kickstart would-be franchises, while this juggernaut based on Hasbro action figures trundles along. The Transformers movies have long been easy targets for critics, and this entry is particularly frustrating for us. The Last Knight does what this reviewer has always wanted from this series: it explores the alternate history built around the Transformers’ secret presence on earth – though it’s hard to imagine how giant alien robots can stay secret for too long. However, this ends up being expectedly ludicrous, with plot contrivances that beggar belief scattered throughout the film. It turns out that there is a Da Vinci Code-esque secret society entrusted with guarding said history, its members including William Shakespeare, Leonardo da Vinci, the Wright Brothers, Harriet Tubman, Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking. How giant alien robots traipsing around are kept secret is anybody’s guess.

This film strikes us as a spectacular waste of resources – with its $260 million budget, it’s the most expensive Transformers movie yet. In a way, every big blockbuster is, but some are better at justifying that waste than others. The Last Knight unfolds on a spectacular scale, and like Age of Extinction, its story spans continents and millennia. The visual effects supervised by Scott Farrar are extensive and commendable, and the action set pieces are marginally easier to follow than in previous instalments. However, there are only so many ways one can depict giant robots punching each other, and there are only so many variations on a car chase. While rival car-based franchise Fast and Furious has been continuously inventive, the action in Transformers is concussive and numbing. There’s so much going on that it’s easy to tune out instead of staying focused on the mayhem onscreen.

We held out hope that this might be an improvement because screenwriter Ehren Kruger has been jettisoned, replaced by Iron Man and Punisher: War Zone scribes Art Marcum and Matt Holloway, and Black Hawk Down writer Ken Nolan. Alas, narrative coherence is in short supply and director Michael Bay’s oppressively juvenile sense of humour smothers anything resembling wit.

There’s a scene in which Megatron (Welker) negotiates the release of his Decepticon compatriots with lawyers seated at folding tables in the middle of the desert. We also find General Morshower poring over battle plans in the Pentagon basement, declaring “this is where I deal with the dark s***”. And yes, there are racial stereotypes aplenty – Bay is endlessly amused at those stuffy Brits, Hot Rod (Sy) has a thick French accent, gold chain-wearing Decepticon Nitro Zeus (DiMaggio) paraphrases Martin Luther King Jr. while being released from prison, and Decepticon Mohawk (Reno Wilson) is characterised as a violent street thug. Any accusations that critics are “reading into things” are rendered moot by Bay’s insouciant rejection of subtlety in any form.

Wahlberg may be a better fit as the franchise’s leading man than Shia LaBeouf was, but even then, Wahlberg’s getting annoying. It’s a relief, then, that this is supposedly his last Transformers film. By making the female lead an Oxford professor, the film goes down the predictable route of having Cade and Viviane bicker endlessly while being set up as a couple. Haddock is by far the best actress to have played the female lead in this series, but that’s a low bar. She’s also the least overtly sexualised and has the most agency of all the female leads in the series – but that’s also a low bar, seeing as Viviane struts around in tight dresses and stilettos for the first half of the film.

With Izabella and her sidekick, transforming Vespa Sqweeks, Bay appears to steer the film back to the “a kid and their X” roots, as embodied by Sam Witwicky’s friendship with Bumblebee in the first movie. This feels like an afterthought, and Izabella is one of several characters who feel like hangers-on.

After starring in HBO’s Westworld, Sir Anthony Hopkins hangs out with far bigger robots here. He looks to be having a grand old time, playing the eccentric earl with a twinkle in his eye. A lot of his dialogue is incredibly stupid, but it helps that it’s being uttered by Hopkins. Burton is given a sidekick in the form of an idiosyncratic robot butler named Cogman (Carter), who is frequently annoying and is pretty much a more annoying version of Rogue One’s K2-SO.

Duhamel, Morshower, Turturro and others return from the earlier movies, begging the question of why LaBeouf isn’t in this, at least for a little. Not that we want to see him in this at all, but given that Sam is Bumblebee’s best friend, it stands to reason that Bumblebee should seek him out over the course of this film.

To its credit, The Last Knight does feel shorter than its 150-minute runtime, and features a novel submarine chase that’s different enough from the standard action sequences we’ve seen from this franchise. It’s fine for blockbusters to be silly, but when nothing less than the end of the world is at hand, The Last Knight should be more impactful and less superfluous than it is.

Summary: Bombastic and bloated, The Last Knight’s convoluted mythos and tedious action is enlivened by the joyous presence of Sir Anthony Hopkins. Audiences with the fortitude to surrender to its thunderous stupidity might get a modicum of enjoyment out of this.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Transformers: Age of Extinction

For F*** Magazine

TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION

Director : Michael Bay
Cast : Mark Wahlberg, Stanley Tucci, Nicola Peltz, Jack Reynor, Kelsey Grammer, Li Bingbing, Sophia Myles, Titus Welliver, T. J. Miller and the voices of: Peter Cullen, Robert Foxworth, John Goodman, John DiMaggio, Ken Watanabe, Frank Welker
Genre : Action, Sci-Fi
Opens : 26 June 2014
Running time: 165 mins

Lord Bay of House Boom has returned locked and loaded for the fourth live-action Transformers film despite saying he would quit the franchise, this time with a new human cast. It has been four years since Chicago was decimated in the battle between Autobots and Decepticons and the U. S. government has decided to end their partnership with the Autobots, declaring them enemies. CIA official Harold Attinger (Grammer) is in charge of hunting them down, engaging the services of mercenary Savoy (Welliver) and ruthless Decepticon bounty hunter Lockdown (Ryan). Joshua Joyce (Tucci), owner of tech giant KSI, has a lucrative government contract to manufacture man-made facsimiles of the Transformers by reverse-engineering captured and dismantled Autobots and Decepticons. Meanwhile, Texan inventor Cade Yeager (Wahlberg), his best friend Lucas (Miller), his daughter Tessa (Peltz) and Tessa’s boyfriend Shane (Reynor) get drawn into the conflict when they unwittingly come into the possession of a beat-up old truck that just happens to be Optimus Prime (Cullen) himself. With the extinction of humanity imminent, Optimus and the remaining Autobots must defeat Attinger and the Decepticons in pursuit.

            Tennis champ Boris Becker said “you get used to eating caviar and at some point it tastes as ordinary as everything else.” In the context of action movies, explosions are akin to caviar. More doesn’t necessarily mean better, but director Michael Bay has wilfully rejected this notion and continues to stuff his films with more and more. He promised a “less goofy” outing but as this reviewer has learnt the hard way, a Michael Bay cannot change his spots. The elements in the second and third films that led to them being critically panned are still here, just in slightly more controlled doses. There’s still juvenile humour, there’s still racism and sexism, there’s still obnoxious product placement, the action scenes are still overwhelming flurries of whirling, clanging metal, it’s just reined in a bit and therefore slightly more tolerable than before. Bumblebee still talks using voice clips. Instead of an annoying actual dog, there’s an annoying homemade robot dog. Instead of Linkin Park, there’s Imagine Dragons. The film’s stabs at self-aware winking at the audience (an elderly movie theatre proprietor bemoans how all major releases are remakes and sequels) are more awkward and on the nose than anything else.

            Apologists of this film series have often used the “this is not Citizen Kane” argument. Well, even Citizen Kane had a running time of 119 minutes. This bad boy clocks in at 165 minutes, the longest Transformers movie yet. It’s overkill. Were this around 100 minutes long, we might’ve been really entertained. Still, there are definitely parts of the movie to commend. Bay and screenwriter Ehren Kruger have decided to make the human villain a CIA official, which combined with the decreased role of the military, makes this less of a jingoism party than the earlier films in the series. Having human scientists attempting to create their own Transformers without comprehending the danger and complexity of the technology is a perfectly viable angle to come at the story from, if somewhat Terminator-esque. And best of all, our protagonist is no longer the useless, unbearably annoying Sam Witwicky.


            Mark Wahlberg is certainly an upgrade from Shia LaBeouf, even if Marky Mech doesn’t break into an off-key rendition of the Transformers theme song “The Touch” like in Boogie Nights. Cade Yeager is a bundle of clichés: All-American everyman turned hero, amateur inventor whose workshop is filled with knick-knacks plus he’s an over-protective single dad who utterly disapproves of his daughter’s boyfriend just on principle. But Wahlberg being significantly less punch-worthy than LaBeouf makes a difference. Nicola Peltz of The Last Airbender infamy fulfils the pre-requisites of being the female lead in this series: she can’t act and she rocks the Daisy Dukes. Reynor is a typical modern Hollywood imported pretty-boy; some kind of attempt made at explaining away the Irish actor’s accent – Cade ends up disparagingly referring to his would-be son-in-law as “Lucky Charms”. Once again, at least he’s significantly less annoying than Shia LaBeouf.

            While Stanley Tucci is subjected to a good deal of embarrassment as a send-up of tech icons like Steve Jobs, he is spared the depths of indignity that the likes of John Turturro and John Malkovich suffered in the previous movies. Kelsey Grammer takes his role as primary human antagonist surprisingly seriously and his frighteningly pragmatic Attinger is a bright spot in the film, so many steps up from Patrick Dempsey in Dark of the Moon. Titus Welliver is also quite imposing and the sequence in which he pursues Cade as they cling to the exterior of a Hong Kong apartment building is plenty of fun. As the head of KSI in China, Li Bingbing is the stock boss lady and without Sally Cahill to dub over her like in Resident Evil: Retribution, she valiantly battles the English language. The voice acting is good as well, not only is definitive Optimus Prime performer Peter Cullen back, but the legendary Frank Welker reprises his role as Galvatron from the various animated series. Thankfully, Ken Watanabe and John Goodman’s distinct voices are still recognizable even after being treated with that robot voice filter. Watanabe also gets to deliver the film’s funniest line, Drift’s reaction upon first seeing the Dinobots transform.

            One thing has been true about this series: no matter how bad the rest of the film gets, the visual effects work certainly can’t be faulted and we’d like to salute visual effects supervisor Scott Farrar and the armies of artists and technicians who brought the Autobots, Decepticons and those fan-favourite Dinobots to life. Amidst the bombast, we also get genuinely beautiful shots, like those of the Autobots convening in Monument Valley and a shot in which Lockdown’s ship is reflected in Chicago’s Cloud Gate sculpture. We saw this in IMAX 3D and even though it is often pretty to look at, the constantly shifting aspect ratios can be very distracting. Transformers: Age of Extinction is more bearable than Revenge of the Fallenand Dark of the Moon, albeit certainly not the paradigm shift in quality it is touted to be. But hey, this is a movie with a humanoid robot semi-truck astride a giant robot T-rex charging into battle, so it’s not like anything we say matters too much anyway.

SUMMARY: While relatively better than its predecessors thanks to more likeable leads and less superfluous subplots, many of the problems that plagued the earlier Transformers movies are still very present throughout the 165 minute duration.

Mark Wahlberg, Jack Reynor and Nicola Peltz do not love the smell of napalm any time of the day.



RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars
Jedd Jong